Half an hour after I clock out I’m in the closest Walmart, browsing the aisle for cordless phone accessories. Unsurprisingly, I’m the only customer this far back into the store, and I clench my teeth in irritation when I see the price for a new bundle of phone batteries.
The elderly man who came into my work looking for batteries was so frail looking I felt like he’d break apart if I breathed on him heavy. His voice was so soft I had to lean in to hear him. He lived downtown, in Section 8 housing set up in a swanky old former hotel. He shuffled in with the kindliest smile and asked if we had any batteries. We did, but only the kind people still use. He’d been all over downtown. I mentioned he’d probably find what he needed at Kroger, well beyond his means of mobility.
So here I was, at Walmart at 10:30. The old guy gave me $15 but the batteries ran a dollar over with tax. I hopped in my car and debated telling the old guy he owed me a buck.
Another half hour later, and I’m parked outside his building. It’s raining a little but I still take a moment to look up and take in the old place. In its day it must have been swanky, catering to the richest old racists Macon could stir up. Decades ago a realty group purchased the place, long after it’d shuttered. Now it housed the most vulnerable people you could dig up in town. People complain about the place, with its gaggle of drunks in wheelchairs parked outside every day. People complain because the worth of the place is being shared by those the more fortunate have somehow “beaten” at life. I hope this place houses the poor forever. A building can’t be more useful than that.
The security guard at the desk doesn’t see me. I know because I don’t see him until I’m almost at the elevator. I pause, debate whether I should sign in, and sign in anyway. The guard looks both surprised and confused when I tell him I’m there. He mumbles, writes down my name and license number, then waves me on, still looking nervous and confused.
I go up thirteen stories and wander the hall until I find the right apartment number. When he answers, his voice is louder, and he’s got a plastic cup of amber liquid in his hand.
“Hey!” he says to me. “Hey, man, thank you so much! Hey, you wanna come inside?”
I raise my hand to decline, but he doesn’t see me. He’s already splashing four fingers of Evan Williams into another cup.
Well, long as I’m already here.
“I tell you I was in Korea?” he tells me for the fourth time, but I don’t mind because by this point we’ve opened another bottle of charcoal-filtered liquid gold. I’m not drunk but I’m well past the point where the whiskey stops tasting sour and begins to get sweet.
“Nope,” I lie, and he starts telling me stories about bayonets and helicopter fire, and white officers who had no problem sending black troops like him to the front line.
“I was medical corps, but they made me pick up a gun every now and again.” He nodded, took another swallow. “Yeah, I seen my days alright.”
My phone vibrates as he gets up to go pee. I sip what I know has to be my last cup. I can’t drink it too fast if I wanna go home tonight, but even so I’m gonna have to walk it off before I get behind the wheel. Fuckin’ rain.
“What’re you doing tonight?” her text reads.
It’s more than likely not meant to imply what I’d like it to imply. I’m into her but she’s also a good friend, and the one time we tried going out it ended with her telling me she didn’t think she could see us kissing.
“Getting drunk with strangers,” I text back.
He comes back out, shuffling to his kitchen sink with a dazed look on his face. He drinks a cup of water and stares with dilated pupils into space.
“So how long were you in Korea?” I ask him.
He stares at me a bit before shrugging and mumbling “Few years.” Then he just stands and sips his water.
Right. I down my whiskey and stand up. Best let the old-timer’s medication run its course. “I appreciate the drink.”
“You’re welcome,” he murmurs, and I hear him bolt the door behind me as I leave.
“LOL You’re funny. You wanna hang tonight?”
In my whiskey haze I briefly entertain the idea she’d let me kiss her if I tried to tonight, then I let that thought go and replaced it with guilt. If my lust ruined the friendship I’d regret it for years. If I saw her, it would be as much for her as it would be for me. You drink with friendly faces. You spend the time that matters with friends.
“Maybe,” I text back, the breeze and the chilly wind waking me up. “Text ya in a few?”
And I stroll on. The misting rain beads on my shirt and skin. A light goes off in the old hotel. The wet empty road shimmers in the greens and reds of street lights. I ignore them, content to go to wherever it is I need to go.